America Isn’t Leading the World

After four years of Donald Trump, Joe Biden was supposed to restore the United States to a position of global leadership. By many conventional standards of Washington, he has delivered. He anticipated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and adroitly rallied NATO to stand up to it. In Asia, he shored up old alliances, built new ones and fanned China’s economic headwinds. After Israel was attacked, he managed to support it while avoiding all-out regional war.

Yet there is more to global leadership than backing friends and beating back foes. Leaders, in the full sense, don’t just remain on top; they solve problems and inspire confidence. Mr. Trump barely pretends to offer that kind of leadership on the world stage. But precisely because most U.S. officials do, it is all the more striking where American power stands today. Never in the decades since the Cold War has the United States looked less like a leader of the world and more like the head of a faction — reduced to defending its preferred side against increasingly aligned adversaries, as much of the world looks on and wonders why the Americans think they’re in charge.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, a familiar frisson shot through Washington. After decades of dubious warmaking, the United States would become the global good guy again, uniting the world to resist the Kremlin’s blatant affront to law and order. In the opening months, the White House scored brilliant tactical successes, enabling Ukraine’s defense, organizing aid from allies and smoothing Finland’s and Sweden’s entry into NATO. Yet if Russia is paying a steep price for its invasion, the conflict is also dealing a strategic setback to the United States.

The United States now must contend with an aggrieved and unpredictable nuclear peer in Moscow. Worse, China, Iran and North Korea have come closer together to supply Russia’s war effort and resist what they call U.S. global hegemony. This anti-American entente has already proved strong enough to mitigate the effects of Western aid to Ukraine, and it is raising the price of U.S. military dominance. Russia directly borders six countries that the United States is treaty-bound to defend. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is preparing for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The United States is not outmatched, exactly. But it is badly overstretched.

Nor is the rest of the world flocking to America’s side. Most countries are casting a plague on both houses, finding fault in Russian aggression but also in the West’s response. Mr. Biden hasn’t helped matters. By couching the conflict as a “battle between democracy and autocracy” and making few visible efforts to seek peace through diplomacy, he has appeared to ask other countries to sign up for an endless struggle. Hardly any nations besides U.S. allies have imposed sanctions on Russia. Isolating China, if it attacked Taiwan, would be an even taller task. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, perceptions of Russia and China have actually improved since 2022.

The Gaza war came at the worst possible time, and Mr. Biden responded to this calamity by plunging in. He immediately pledged support for Israel’s merciless military campaign rather than condition U.S. aid on Israel finding a strategy that would protect civilians. Having chosen to follow, not lead, Mr. Biden was left to tut-tut about Israel’s behavior from the self-imposed sidelines. In a defining conflict, the United States has managed to be weak and oppressive at once. The costs to America’s reputation and security are only beginning to appear.

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